October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. BCGi invited Julie Sowash, Senior Consultant at Disability Solutions and a person with a disability, to share a two-part article to raise awareness about mental illness. Her first article focuses on understanding mental illness in the United States and her second will focus on improving employment and retention for those with mental health challenges in the workplace. The article published on BCGi can be viewed here.
Last week Jason Kandor, a veteran and Kansas City mayoral candidate shocked the nation. This up and coming political star suspended his campaign.
Why? He is finally speaking his truth.
“I’m done hiding this from myself and from the world,” Kandor said. “When I wrote in my book that I was lucky to not have PTSD, I was just trying to convince myself. And I wasn’t sharing the full picture. I still have nightmares. I am depressed.”
Twitter and the media were ablaze within minutes. Most saw him as a fallen star, “a once national contender” now reduced to his injury and his illness. Others wished him well with an air of sadness and pity. Some of the few, the enlightened, voiced their pride in his strength, and the necessity of leaders and influencers to open up about their struggles and the reality of mental illness.
Those enlightened supporters also know, as Kandor does, this is not a good-bye or a fall from grace; it is the rebirth of his story. His return, when healthy and cognizant of his ongoing needs, will give him unprecedented ability to shape policy, give a voice to hope, and bring to the forefront a discussion about the stigmas associated with mental illness.
Mr. Kandor is not alone. In 2016, an estimated 45 million adults in the United States had a mental illness. Equaling nearly 1 in 5 Americans. Of those, approximately 10 million (4.2% of the US population) are considered to have a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
To give some perspective to this statistic, here are some comparisons:
61 million Americans has a disability – 1 in 4 Americans
1.5 million Americans are on the Autism Spectrum – 1 in 68 American children are born with ASD
8.5 million Americans has a mobility related disability
How does mental illness compare in size to other “affirmative action” populations?
19% of US adults have a mental illness
12.3% of US population is Black
12.5% of the US population is Hispanic
To me, a woman with multiple diagnosed mental illnesses, those numbers are staggering. And let us not forget disability is the most inclusive group in the world. In fact, 1 in 4 women in the US have a disability. And mental illness is most prevalent in young adults aged 18-25.
But you never hear about us. Despite the fact, we are part of the largest diversity population in the country and in my estimation, the largest subsection of Americans with disabilities. No one is throwing us star-studded fundraisers, veterans are coming home injured and uncared for after nearly two decades of constant war, and a Google search for “mental health hiring programs” does not list a single employer focused on better integration and retention of Americans with mental illness.
I wish I knew why, but the truth is I don’t. But I do know I have a responsibility to start raising the banner to ensure employers know there is a viable talent pool available, one that is already significantly represented in your workforce. We are and can be your most valuable assets, but we need to be able to speak our truth to you. In most cases, we, unlike Jason Kandor or myself, do not have the option to say aloud, I need help.
I have battled major depression since my teens and after my daughter was born in late 1999, I added near constant overwhelming anxiety and weekly panic attacks – some lasting hours with days of lingering effects. My brain would not let me get away from my fear and my anxiety. My head was in a constant state of overstimulation. Finally, in 2010, I was ready to speak my truth. I was exhausted, sad, and even when surrounded by love, utterly alone. I needed help.
For myself, until I entered this world and my work began to focus on disability in the workforce, I did not recognize my disabilities as medical issues to be treated. I only saw personal failings to be hidden, blunted through self-medication, and dismissed as all in my head amidst an air of judgement that never dissipated after disclosure to even my closest confidantes.
For the first time in my life, I was equipped with the knowledge my disabilities were not in my head and they were not my personal failures. This empowered me to stop hiding and to start taking positive steps to get healthy. I advocated for myself with my doctors, started cognitive therapy, and prioritized self-care and work/life balance.
Finally, I learned one more disability was creating a perfect storm in my brain multiplying the severity of the others, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). In my case, managing my ADD through medication, therapy, and anxiety reducing techniques was the game changer. Now my anxiety and panic attacks are manageable without medication (most of the time). Physically, my blood pressure dropped 20 points, I started sleeping through the night, and I could get through unfinished tasks and focus on my children.
And I am not alone, according to the Center for Workplace Mental Health, 80% of employees treated for mental health issues report improvements in their job satisfaction and productivity.
Through all of this, I always worked and I, fortunately, never had to take leave because of my illnesses, but I know now they were inhibiting my professional growth in ways I could not see at the time. When I finally became healthy, my productivity soared and my career (and my passion) launched. I emerged on the other side – not a fallen star, not one to be pitied, but as an asset and as a leader.
Food for Thought: National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM) is a great time for businesses to review their mental health supports. This starts by asking the right questions:
What can employers do to promote an open dialogue about mental illness?
How can employers empower leaders and employees to recognize and act when mental illness issues occur?
Is there a business case for focusing on proactive mental health management for employees?
Read Part Two: Truth Be Told | Mental Health in the Workplace
About Julie: In her role as Senior Consultant, Julie works with Disability Solutions’ clients to first assess current outreach, hiring, and retention systems, policies, and processes that impact an organization’s ability to successfully engage and retain qualified jobseekers with disabilities and then develop recommendations for solutions based on the results. Julie’s portfolio of client projects includes PepsiCo (Pepsi ACT), DB Schenker and P&G (Project WIN), Synchrony Financial (PDN Hire), American Express, Aon, and Aramark. You can engage her at Julie.Sowash@DisabilityTalent.org and follow her on LinkedIn and Twitter.